Just in time for Pride Month, Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre presents the world premiere of an uplifting rock musical, SuperYou. This high-wattage (literally) show is a rare chance for Milwaukee audiences to see the evolution of a Broadway-caliber production in their own backyard. Despite its many charms, however, SuperYou does not seem quite ready for its planned transfer to London’s West End.
Chicago audiences are frequently afforded such opportunities, with recent pre-Broadway productions of SIX, Paradise Square and The Addams Family, and plays like August: Osage County. But this production is a first for Milwaukee in many ways.
This world premiere is being presented as part of World Premiere Wisconsin, a statewide effort to produce new work. The final plays and musicals in this nationally-recognized series will end in June. At its core, SuperYou is a valentine to those who were taunted and teased by their peers as kids, causing them to feel unwanted and unappreciated. In this case, a young girl name Katie (first played by the amazing Serena Parrish, then replaced in an older version by the talented Kennedy Caughell) must deal with a troubled home life as well as the “mean girls” in class. In school, she is tagged with names such as loser, geek, freak, etc.
Crushed by her classmates’ rejection, she retreats into the comic book characters she draws. Many of these characters are based on real kids she knows. She gives her characters powerful names such as “Blast,” and “Ima-Mazing.” She also draws herself as a character named “Lightning Girl,” whose electricity-charged super power eventually ignites Katie’s sense of self-worth and value.
A Much-Needed Lifeline in Today’s World
SuperYou’s empowering message is all the more relevant in today’s culture, which revolves around social media and has been shown to particularly affect young girls. The musical also speaks to the queer community, as the smallish cast includes both trans and non-binary characters. They suffer the same fate at the hands of their classroom oppressors.
The creation of SuperYou can be traced to the personal experience of its creator, Lourds Lane, who contributes the show’s book, music and lyrics. Lane is paired here with Joann M. Hunter, the show’s director and choreographer (whose impressive choreography credits include Broadway’s School of Rock and the more recent Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Bad Cinderella).
According to Skylight artistic director Michael Unger, the show will travel from Milwaukee to London’s West End. That will be a far cry from its original beginnings Off-Broadway, where a planned production in 2020 was derailed by the pandemic.
Since then, the show’s backers discovered their own resilience in keeping the show alive: first on Tik Tok (which is also featured in the musical’s storyline) and then in two concert versions. One concert was staged on the back of pick-up trucks in upstate New York, and the other was at Carnegie Hall.
In the Milwaukee version, SuperYou contains slick production elements, especially in its lighting and projection design, and its costumes. It also has a dream cast of Broadway performers, who belt out an amazing number of songs (27). Of these, the best include: a clever, romantic ballad, “Held While Flying,” a strong Act II opener, “We’re Here,” and a female empowerment number by Katie and her superhero creations, “All We Got Is Now.” The show’s other songs aren’t particularly memorable.
A Talented Cast Is Among ‘SuperYou’s’ Main Assets
Although everyone here shines, the main performers certainly knock it out of the park. Among them are: Young Serena Parrish, a rising star, 15-going-on-30; who is not to be outdone by Kennedy Caughell (who plays the transformative, slightly older Katie); Justin Matthew Sargent as the dashing leading man, Jay/Thunder Boy; B. Noel Thomas, who plays Sammy/Seven, a Black, trans character with considerable flair; Wren Rivera, a non-binary, Asian-Latinx performer from the Chicago area who appears as Jo Jo/Rise; Shelby Griswold as the punk rocker Missy/Ima-Mazing; Jenna Rubai as Ash/Blast; Christopher Oram as Matty, Katie’s brother; and Blake Zelesnikar as Mi Roar (see below).
The choreography throughout is delightfully edgy and reminiscent of certain Janet Jackson, Beyonce or Brittney Spears music videos. The dancing captivates, especially when executed by Mi Roar (played with athletic, feline ability by Zelesnikar). Mi Roar is a mysterious villain who occasionally pops up in Katie’s nightmares. Neither “Mi Roar” nor Katie’s alcoholic mother (played exquisitely by Milwaukee dancer Melissa Anderson) do much speaking. Their characters are basically expressed by movement, and it works.
Katie’s older brother, Matty (Chris Oram), is her main source of emotional support. One can almost envision the animated Oram in his former role as Jack Kelly in Newsies. He gives Matty a similarly goofy, boyish charm. It’s a sad moment when Matty suddenly disappears from Act I.
As the older Katie copes with her losses, both at home and at school, she finds comfort in the arms of an admirer, Jay (Justin Matthew Sargent). Although only a coffee shop barista, Jay has dreams of making it big in the music industry. The sympathetic and helpful Katie shows him how to get exposure via Tik Tok (which, of course, goes viral). Jay almost instantaneously becomes an internet star. He begins to toss off comments such as, “I’ve gotta keep feeding the algorithm.”
Soon, Jay must overcome some uncertainty and disappointments in his own life. SuperYou excels at piling on multiple hurdles that its characters must overcome to achieve emotional balance. Even if real life doesn’t always distribute its difficulties in such a condensed fashion, it certainly must feel that way to the real-life teens and young adults who must deal with them.
Although the production is graced by strong voices, one wishes for more musical oomph than a four-piece band is able to provide. Still, under the direction of Bryson Baumgartel, the musicians produce an amazingly rich sound. The show’s music supervisor is Wendy Bobbitt Cavett.
The industrial-looking set (by Ann Louizos) provides a framework for dramatic projections on multiple screens (Patrick W. Lord). Lighting designer Jamie Roderick might be a bit more forgiving with some of the high-wattage special effects, which seem more appropriate for a rock concert. Sound designer Chad Parsley manages to keep everything in balance—no small feat, considering the amount of off-stage dialogue that sometimes “interrupts” the onstage performers. Costume design by Cynthis Nordstrom is striking throughout—of everything about SuperYou, it’s the cast and costumes that are ready for their London debut.
However, SuperYou still needs to find its way into audience’s hearts. Too much of its construction shows, like a production put together by a committee. Some of the plot twists feel manipulative, and the comic-book characters don’t have much depth. As a result, audiences may not feel compelled to cry or cheer for their stories. As it stands now, the show is more of a one-dimensional comic book than a full-fledged musical.
SuperYou at Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre runs through June 18. Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission. The theater, located at 158 N. Broadway, in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward, does not require mask-wearing at this time. Single performance tickets may be purchased by calling 414-291-7811 or visiting skylightmusictheatre.org.
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